It’s spring here in New York City, and people are hurrying off to work weighed down with more than the usual laptops and cell phones. Spring — and the related notion of spring cleaning — has these folks carrying garments they’re not wearing, things in need of cleaning and repair. Many of these are what designers call jackets.
Which, of course, is what another species of designer calls the attractive and informative attire books wear. Those jackets are meant to be protective, too. And, like our clothing, they need care now and then.
There’s no need to cart book jackets to your neighborhood cleaners, nor make arrangements for that urban indulgence, pickup and delivery. You can do the job yourself, at your convenience, using household products and clear plastic dust jacket covers.
We like spring for book cleaning because of the longer periods and quality of daylight that we prefer over artificial light, for the clearest view of a problem leads to the best course of action and the most successful outcome. Natural light illuminates our favorite space for book care best at this time of year. Your first task, then, is to find the place nature and the calendar make ideal for you.
Next, select the books whose jackets need care. One objection we’ve heard to do-it-yourself book repair is “I’ve got so many books!” Counter this classic procrastinator’s aid by making a plan that conforms to the time and effort you’re ready to spend and the most pressing needs of your collection. Choose one particular shelf of books, the top-ten worst-wounded jackets among the books you love best, your mysteries or cookbooks — it’s up to you. It’s a start, and manageable.
The surface on which you work can affect the outcome. If you use a kitchen counter, take care that the surface is neither damp nor coated with residue of breakfast or cleansers. Doubts about its cleanliness for book care? Cover it with plastic wrap or paper towels. Surfaces such as Formica can be wiped with rubbing alcohol, that great cleaner of the coated dust jacket. Similarly, a wood tabletop may be perfect in terms of size and light, but when did you last use lemon oil or other wood-care products on it? A dust jacket, especially one of uncoated paper, must be kept free from the slightest hint of oily substances. Again, a clean covering makes the wood surface a safe workspace.
Why all this attention to the surface on which you’ll work? Simple dust jacket cleaning, such as the gentle wiping with a soft cloth that can be done with the jacket in place around its book, is just the start. For true spring cleaning and repair, the dust jacket must be removed from the book and placed face down and open, its exterior exposed to whatever it rests on. No reason to risk one side while improving the other!
What does the inside of the book jacket look like? Dirt loose or firmly adhering often collects there, especially in the creases that allow the jacket to fold around a book’s covers. A soft brush or cloth can move loose dirt; an Artgum eraser usually removes all, or enough, of firmer accumulations.
A dust jacket in this open, inside-out position is ready for the most basic of repairs: the simple tear. If the tear closes neatly, which you can judge by laying the jacket right side up and noting how well the damaged parts meet, the remedy is easy. Flip the jacket over, use your finger or a bone folder to hold the tear closed, and apply a small piece of invisible [acid free] tape** , or several pieces if the tear is longer than an inch or so. A jacket torn in half can usually be made whole by the same method. A tear that involves fraying may be more of a challenge but can be fixed. Take care that the frayed areas are in their original positions before applying tape or toothpick’s touch of glue.
Missing pieces (chips) can be similarly positioned and secured if you have them; if not, does the surrounding area need reinforcement? Again, small pieces of tape may help the jacket hold its shape.
Protecting the repaired and cleaned dust jacket with a clear plastic cover is the final step. A jacket with large chips or of delicate, aging paper can be made stable by careful placement in clear plastic. Covers with paper backing are often ideal when you have a partial jacket.
Before altering your dust jackets (or any other part of a book), ask yourself what its value is to you. If it’s an investment-quality volume, it’s wise to make no alterations; a clear plastic dust jacket cover will secure a jacket weakened at its creases or badly frayed. As a general rule, do nothing to affect a book’s authenticity, which affects value. But the repairs you do undertake will make your books look better and last longer, just like the split seam well sewn preserves your favorite tweed jacket.
Biblio Edit: Many concerned booksellers have written encouraging an edit to this article, so we will share it here without changing the text above. Please beware of using invisible tape or any kind of tape to repair dust jackets. The adhesive and acids can cause just as much damage as the original tear.